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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Parting thoughts on 2013 season as RailHawks prepare for finale against San Antonio

Posted by on Sat, Nov 2, 2013 at 10:42 AM

If the leading indicators prove true, then the Carolina RailHawks should end their season tonight with the best overall record of the 2013 NASL spring and fall seasons. They haven't lost at home all year, and the opponent is the bottom-dwelling San Antonio Scorpions. (I know, to write these thoughts down is to put the hex on the RailHawks, but if sports betting were legal in North Carolina, this is how we would handicap tonight's game.)

When the split season format was unveiled, observers quickly noted the possibility—the likelihood even—of a team compiling the best overall record across the
click to enlarge NIck Zimmerman, seen in April, would miss the entire RailHawks season. - DAVID FELLERATH
  • David Fellerath
  • NIck Zimmerman, seen in April, would miss the entire RailHawks season.
two mini-seasons but failing to make the one-game post-season, the Soccer Bowl.

While it's unfortunate that our local team has landed in this predicament, after season-long reflection, I've decided I'm OK with it. Let me explain why in several points.

First, while the RailHawks were pretty good most of the time, they weren't good enough when it counted. In late June, they were two points ahead of Atlanta with two games to play, and they failed to see out the season. In the fall, the RailHawks, like everyone else, have been left foundering in the wake left by the arriviste New York Cosmos.

They were pretty good, but under the rules of this year's NASL competition, they didn't make the grade.

I'm sympathetic to the league's effort to break away from the multi-round postseason that has come to characterize the business model of American professional sports. I'm a guy who wants the regular season results to be meaningful, which is difficult when a season is an 82-game grind at the end of which 16 teams will qualify for the playoffs. In the NHL, a Stanley Cup-winning team can play as many as 28 post-season games, equivalent to 34 percent of the regular season.

Unsurprisingly, fans have learned that they can tune out hockey or baseball or pro basketball for six largely meaningless months and, instead, wait for the playoffs to start.

The regular season, then, becomes an exercise in marketing an entertainment product and executing sophisticated sales strategies to get butts in the seats. The Carolina Hurricanes have no end of promotional ploys to entice people into PNC Arena on, say, a Tuesday night in January to see the Columbus Blue Jackets.
click to enlarge New hospitality facilities at WakeMed allowed for live music. Above: Lonnie Walker - DAVID FELLERATH
  • David Fellerath
  • New hospitality facilities at WakeMed allowed for live music. Above: Lonnie Walker

But a funny thing happens when the playoffs start: The games have to sell themselves because there's no time for group sales and complex promotions to be arranged. The last time the Hurricanes made the playoffs, the early-round games saw large swathes of empty seats in what was then known as the RBC Center. And on Thursday night, MLS fans saw acres of empty seats in Houston's Reliant Stadium as the Dynamo defeated the Montreal Impact 3-0 in a one-game playoff. The crowd was reported at 10,476, but this video suggests that figure was generous.

For years I was puzzled by the phenomenon of low attendance at playoff games, especially soccer, hockey and minor league baseball. But when I wrote a story about the notoriously poor attendance at Durham Bulls playoff games, I learned that in the post-season, without the aid of group sales, the people in the stands are the kind of people who walk up and buy tickets. In other words, the true, hardcore fans. (This was probably the case in Houston on Thursday night, too: The several thousand people who were there probably represented the most passionate slice of the fan base.)

So, how does all this figure into NASL's controversial split-season and one-game post-season? For starters, hockey teams and MLS teams may be able to survive weak attendance in early-round playoff games, but for second-division soccer, the expense is profligate to the point of being ruinous. You don't need the back of an envelope to know the great expense of transporting 20-odd people across thousands of miles on short notice.

There was a saying that used to circulate around Division 2 teams: "The better you do in the playoffs, the more money you lose." In 2010, Minnesota came to Cary for a playoff game. Then known as NSC Minnesota, the team was struggling financially, and their situation was so dire that they couldn't afford to fly everyone down. At least two players, as I recall, made the 1,200-mile trip to the game by car. 

With a traditional multi-round playoff structure being so expensive, it makes sense to create a post-season that not only limits losses but provides a way to (possibly) make money. So, the Atlanta Silverbacks and the league office have had four months to plan the Soccer Bowl, locate corporate partners and otherwise beat the drums. (Not everything has gone off without a hitch, though: One silly television ad that—shudder—aired on NBC Sports Network was roundly ridiculed.)

Judging from the Silverbacks' website, Soccer Bowl sales look decent and no doubt the stands will be respectably full for the ESPN webcast on Nov. 9. If I watch, I'll surely root for the Atlanta Silverbacks, a team put together by the American soccer renegade Eric Wynalda and coached by the appealingly courtly Brian Haynes. (Last weekend, Haynes offered his own frank assessment of the downside of peaking in the spring.)

But it doesn't break my heart that the RailHawks won't be in the Soccer Bowl. With their disastrous road record, they haven't been quite good enough. But I'm grateful for the pleasure they provided when they were in Cary. I loved watching them live all season, and they delivered time and again on the home pitch, including famous U.S. Open Cup victories over the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA, and a delicious 3-0 pasting of the world-famous New York Cosmos.

But, one might ask, don't the RailHawks deserve something if they finish the season with the best overall record? I completely agree, and that's why I'm thrilled that this effort is underway: the Phillip A. Woosnam Memorial Cup, to be given to the team with the best record across the two halves. As I wrote on Facebook somewhere, it's important that the league treat this trophy as a prestigious piece of silverware, a worthy goal for a team to aspire to all season long. (It would also be an answer to the question of how to provide autumn motivation for the winner of the spring season.) 
click to enlarge Enjoying a RailHawks goal in Section 309 - DAVID FELLERATH
  • David Fellerath
  • Enjoying a RailHawks goal in Section 309

The RailHawks have indeed been the best team across the two halves, and it's important that they be honored for this—presuming, of course, that tonight's results go their way.

As I recently argued on another blog, we should enjoy the experience of live soccer rather than view the regular season as a means to an end. I'll be attending tonight's game with a friend of mine from Durham who typically goes to one or two matches a year, often with me. He's a fan of English soccer, does well in his fantasy league, and he also coached his daughter through her youth career as a goalkeeper. He's a guy who likes soccer, but is hardly a committed RailHawks fan.

We're going to have a great time at the game tonight.

Along with other members of the media in NASL-world, I cast ballots for player and coach of the year. Tampa Bay's Bulgarian striker Georgi Hristov scored 12 goals and made 7 assists, a bundle of goal-mouth menace that was good enough to get my vote. His teammate Luke Mulholland (10 goals, seven assists) earned my second-place vote, and Brian Shriver, the RailHawks' opportunistic workhorse, got my third-place vote for his league-leading 13 goals (and one assist). League stats here.

Coach of the year was a tough call, with Atlanta's Haynes, Tampa Bay's Ricky Hill and Carolina's Colin Clarke being the best candidates (I ruled out the Cosmos' Giovanni Savarese, along with his players, since these awards should be for the entire season).

Haynes did a wonderful job guiding the Silverbacks to the spring title, but I ruled him out because of his inability to avert a fall swoon that, frankly, sours the appeal of the Soccer Bowl.

Hill's Rowdies have had a good season, and there's a chance they'll nip the not-yet-extant Woosnam Cup from the RailHawks tonight. But with the likes of Hristov, Mulholland, Diego Restrepo, Amani Walker and Etienne Barbara on Hill's team, one might expect the Rowdies to have been a little bit better. Certainly they aren't better than last year's team, which won the NASL title and earned Hill the coach of the year award.

This brings us to Colin Clarke. Yes, Colin Clarke. There's no question that the failure to see out the spring title gnaws at him, and at supporters. Oddly, though, my biggest complaint about his decision-making is for a choice he made that is relatively uncontroversial. That is, I deeply regretted his decision to, er, tank the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal against Real Salt Lake, 3-0.

With two important games remaining in the spring league season, Clarke's decision to start a defensive team, with a number of little-used players, was regarded as the safe, prudent thing to do. But to me, a deep Cup run is something that only happens once or twice a decade. What was the point of getting excited about the victories over the Galaxy and Chivas if the RailHawks were going to fold once the going got tough? And what was the point of flying Shriver, Austin da Luz, Cesar Elizondo and Zack Schilawski all the way across the country, only to start them on the bench? (After the bus-parking RailHawks went down 1-0, Shriver, da Luz and Elizondo were brought on to chase the game, to no avail.)

Had the RailHawks attempted to win in Salt Lake City, and had improbably succeeded, there would have been an Open Cup semifinal at WakeMed against the Portland Timbers. To me, that's a goal far more worthwhile than a measly spring league title. (Remember, in NASL you get two chances a year to win a league title.)

click to enlarge Colin Clarke in April - DAVID FELLERATH
  • David Fellerath
  • Colin Clarke in April
To add insult to injury, the U.S. Open Cup was won by woeful DC United—more evidence that the competition is there for NASL's taking one of these years. But first, you need to try.

So that's my major complaint about Clarke's coaching this season. On the plus side, his accomplishments include an unbeaten record at home and, as of this morning, the best overall league record.

But what tipped it for me was that he managed this record in the face of extraordinary injuries. This year's team was expected to be built around the two Nicks: Zimmerman and Addlery. Zimmerman's entire season was shot after he was hurt while on trial at Sporting Kansas City, while Addlery returned to action too late to help the team into the post-season. Add to that the injuries suffered by da Luz, Shriver, Tiyi Shipalane, Jordan Graye and Kupono Low, not to mention the Bryan Arguez fiasco and the interpersonal difficulties with Julius James, and you've got a picture of a coach in extremis. And yet, there the RailHawks are, at the top of the Woosnam Cup standings.

So, Colin Clarke gets my vote for NASL coach of the year.

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